Ribeiro in Galicia is one of the oldest wine regions in Europe. It’s an area of rolling green hills, fast flowing rivers and craggy granite outcrops such as Peña Corneira, a huge rock associated with the fertility rights of the Castrexa culture, the Celtiberian tribes that lived here prior to the arrival of the Romans. Local historians are now casting doubt on the Roman or Phoenician origin for viticulture in Spain, saying there’s hard evidence out there in the form of lagares rupestres, ancient wine presses hewn from huge slabs of granite.
They will concede that the Romans introduced new varieties and more sophisticated ways of keeping wine, but insist that the people of the castros were winemakers long before the Roman conquest.
By the 15th century wine from Ribadavia was a much sought after commodity throughout Europe, thanks in great part to the town’s sizeable Jewish community. Quality red and white wine was exported to the British Isles, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia. With the the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and Spain’s economically nearsighted response to the religious reform movement sweeping across Europe, banning all trade with ‘heretical’ states, the region was plunged into catastrophic decline, forcing people to emigrate to the Americas or face the grim reality of starvation.
The English responded to this by calmingly switching their operations to the Lower Duero in Portugal which offered tremendously convenient access to the Atlantic Ocean. Wine merchants from London could now visit Oporto without the fear of being harrassed by the Inquisition and so began England’s love affair with Port. Thankfully, and thanks to a new generation of winemakers, Ribeiro has bounced back and is once again making fabulous wine, particularly whites, using native grape varieties such as Treixadura, Albariño, Lado, Loureiro etc. There’s also a sweet wine known as Tostado which has been rescued from oblivion and formally recognised by the appellation.
Traditionally, Tostado would have been presented as a prestigious gift among noble families when celebrating engagements, weddings, births and christenings. It was also a favourite women’s drawing room tipple until well into the twentieth century.
The wine is naturally sweet with all the sugar (+70g/l) and alcohol obtained (13-15%) coming exclusively from the grape. Treixadura grapes undergo a three month drying process or “pasificación” to produce the raisins, using natural air ventilation, hanging up on special trays or grids. After the crush, the nine month fermentation process begins, using only native yeasts, and it’s a slow one, due to the high concentration of sugars. Oak barrels rather than stainless steel vats are used for this purpose.
The wine is then bottled and transferred to the “sleeping room” for a period of three months. The resulting wine boasts a distinctive bouquet and extraordinary longevity, as long as 40 years in some recorded cases. Visually it’s bright, viscous, with colours ranging from golden and amber to “caoba” or mahogany. In the nose it’s quite complex.
Raisin notes from the pasificación stage are predominant, along with confit citric fruit, honey, nuts and spices. In the mouth its unctuous and velvety, displaying an excellent balance of sweetness and acidity. Aftertaste is long and intense. With most restaurants today offering sybarites a glass of Tokaji or Sauternes with their foie, Tostado de Ribeiro is a very welcome addition to the winelist.
Apart from foie, you can pair it with dried figs, paté, reasonably mature cheese and smoked cheese, hazelnuts, walnuts and ‘decadent’ chocolate puddings.